The BioGeek Memoirs: Swallowtail and Ash

September 1st. I woke up this morning to the sound of geese flying over the house, honking away as they crossed just above the treetops. It is a bright blue day here in Colorado where I live, and the garden and the lawn are recovering after the extreme heat of the last two months. The robins are now gone, and there is just one bunny left in my yard. The fall plants are getting ready to bloom, the first golden leaves are appearing on the locust trees, and the end of summer is upon me.

The stonecrop is starting to bloom, the viburnum berries are turning red, and the last columbine blooms of the season are appearing in the cooler weather.

Monday was an exciting day for the cats as I had the ash tree out front pruned. The tree was damaged in an early heavy snowfall, and I wanted to make sure it was given every opportunity to flourish in the aftermath of losing several limbs.

I love that ash tree! I have it treated for ash borers every year (the emerald ash borer just arrived in my area of Colorado… not good news for ash trees!), and last year I even had it deep watered during the winter to protect it from drought damage. It puts shade onto my house, is an essential component of squirrel route one over the house, and serves as food for one of my favorite butterflies…

Swallowtails! Here they are feeding on my butterfly bush’s blooms.

Swallowtails are big butterflies! They are so big (they don’t hold still long enough for me to measure, but they are like 3-4 inches…) you can sometimes hear them flapping as they head across the yard, darting to and fro as they check out the various blooms in the area. They are much faster and more robust than your usual butterfly, so they are hard to grab a shot of if they don’t settle down onto a flower to snack on some nectar. They love my butterfly bushes, so I planted more last year hoping to lure them to the yard. I also left the stump of an ash tree that I lost a few years ago in the back yard, too.

This is what is left over from my lost ash tree in the back yard.

Okay, I am a geek for sure. I didn’t cut back the suckers from the stump so it would grow into a shrub with enticing ash leaves for swallowtails to lay eggs on. The shrub is also important shade for baby bunnies, but that is another issue. All that lawn damage around the shrub is from the bunnies eating the grass down to the dirt, and then rolling around in the dirt, and then doing a little digging on the side, but… this is a post about butterflies so I will move on.

Bunny: you should just move on… by the way, do you notice how cute I am?

Several times this summer I saw swallowtails in the ash shrub. Yay! The ash tree isn’t food for the butterflies, but rather food for the developing larvae from the eggs that the butterfly lays on the leaves. It is my hope that there were some eggs laid in there that will lead to new swallowtails in the spring next year. I haven’t seen any of the caterpillars, but something has been munching on the leaves…

Quite a few of the leaves show the evidence of an insect snacking on them!

The caterpillars become pupae eventually and then hide themselves away in a sheltered location for the winter, emerging as butterflies in the spring. It is my hope that there are some pupae tucked away in a bunny-proof location near the ground and along the cut-off trunk of the old tree where they will gradually transform into the fabulous flyers of the summer.

The guys who pruned the ash tree out front also removed a struggling maple tree from my back yard. They gave the ash shrub some side eye and offered to take it away too, but I was like… NOOOOOO… I need that for my backyard wildlife…

Did they not notice my butterfly bushes? This backyard is a whole butterfly ecosystem that I have going…

Summer is on the wane, and the swallowtails are gone along with the robins and almost all of my bunnies. Soon the leaves will fall. Asleep, hidden in the debris of summer, the butterflies are secretly transforming and biding their time until May. Sleep well, little guys. I can’t wait to see you next year.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Squirrel

Growing up as a little girl in Southern California I never saw many squirrels. They were this cute little animal that you might be able to see if you went up into the mountains. If you were lucky, you might be able to feed part of your lunch to a ground squirrel at a rest stop. They were rare, elusive, cute, and I absolutely, positively wanted to have one as a pet.

Look at the tail on this little guy who has been hanging out in my back yard!!

Then I moved to Colorado. Squirrels rule here!!! If you offer some food to a squirrel at a park you might get mobbed. Seriously, I had to once pick up a child and back away from the descending mob of squirrels after tossing out some scraps of bread. They are so cute, but best to not encourage them too much. They eat all the yummy food growing in gardens (ahem… strawberries and grapes… ), raid the trash, and aren’t above dragging off the dog’s Kong to get the treats inside. Bird feeders are actually squirrel feeders. These guys are so bright that it is almost impossible to keep them out of the feeders. There were some “squirrel proof” feeders at the local bird supply store, but I just laughed and bought a bird house. I love the squirrels, but I am not feeding them, because… previously mobbed by hungry squirrels…

Teenaged squirrels playing this spring on a garden chair.

Here where I live now there are squirrel nests in trees all around, and this last year a nest finally arrived in my front tree. It looks like a huge ball of leaves caught up in the branches; three cute little squirrel youngsters showed up this spring racing around the trunk, over the branches, and across the roof to my back yard where they access the fence which serves as the highway to all the other houses on my block. I call this Squirrel Route One, and the movement of little feet over the roof and the scrabble of squirrels along the fence are my morning entertainment every day while I’m outside on the deck drinking my morning latte. Why look at what has happened: I have pet squirrels after all!

The pictures show squirrels moving on Squirrel Route One: along the fence, then down into the yard to my deck, across the deck, and then a fast climb to the upper supports and a leap onto the roof. These squirrels aren’t above checking me out to see if I have some unsecured snacks. Nope, little guys. Move along!!

I do make sure that there is water for the squirrels, however.

There are several types of squirrels in Colorado, and these guys seem to be a type of tree squirrel called the fox squirrel. They provide endless entertainment for me and the cats and were great distractions (Squirrel!!!) for me as I recovered from surgery this spring. I used squirrels in my teaching; there was a white squirrel in a Denver park a few years ago, and I used the videotaped newscast about her in my biology classroom. That white squirrel wasn’t an albino as her eyes were dark, and her offspring were all normal in coloration. “What type of genetic mutation is this?” I would ask the class. (It’s recessive.) What would the Punnett square of the offspring look like? If two offspring mated (I know… icky… just go with it!) what would be the chance of another white squirrel? Is this a genetic feature that will be selected for? What if our weather changed and it was snowy all the time? The kids loved the white squirrel lesson. Well, they are so darn cute, what’s not to like?

Adult (not white) squirrel on my ash tree.

I’m not above having fun with squirrels and my neighbors. Squirrels can be enormous pests, and a few years ago they managed to work their way into my next-door neighbor’s attic where they went wild eating the wire insulation. Bad squirrels!! I printed out a recipe for squirrel pot pie and anonymously taped it to their front door. I know, I’m bad. They trapped those squirrels, repaired the roof, and I’m pretty sure that none of the squirrels became dinner. Pretty sure…

They got back by feeding the squirrels that remained lots and lots of peanuts in the shells that the squirrels buried all over my yard and in the gardens.

I gave them a little stuffed toy squirrel wearing baby booties when they had a new baby.

Squirrel wars!

That neighbor eventually moved away and just a couple of weeks ago she called me to catch up on all the neighborhood news. “I now have a squirrel nest!” I told her. They are living in a new housing area without mature trees now and there are no squirrels. They miss them.

Because squirrels are so darn cute!!

And they are favorites of watching cats everywhere!

The BioGeek Memoirs: Snapdragon

I just love snapdragons! I mean, they have those cute little faces; they do look a little like dragon faces if you use some imagination.

Snapdragon plant in my front yard.

Snapdragons are great plants for me in my gardening efforts. They are really hardy, tolerate dry conditions, and there are new varieties that are small and easy to grow in containers and along the edge of your driveway or garden. The picture above is one that is growing in the margin between my rocked-in area and the driveway; I didn’t plant this guy; it is a volunteer that sprang up from a previous year’s plantings. The original plant was something like this one… a mixture of orange, yellow and pink that changes in the flowers as they age. Pretty cool, huh. I look at the plant and wonder how/why the pigment in the flower is changing over time. BioGeek, right?! It gets even better…

All of these plants are also volunteers from the original parent plant from a couple of years ago.

Do you see all of those colors? They are the result of genetic recombination that happened in the original plant’s flowers when the plant reproduced and created the seeds that rose up to produce this array of colors. Some of the offspring have clear-colored flowers (the yellow and the red), while other have the mixed hues and color-changing characteristics of the parent plant.

Notice, I said parent plant. The funky thing about snapdragons is that they self-pollinate and reproduce on their own with the pollen getting to the stamens within the closed flower without any intervention by outside helpers like wind or insects. In fact, they are so hard to open that only a really heavy insect like a bumblebee can open the flower to get to the nectar inside. As the (big old fat) bumblebee climbs into the flower the little hairs on its body pick up pollen. When the bumblebee flies on to another snapdragon and then climbs into that flower it can carry the pollen in with it to cross-pollinate the new plant with the previous one’s pollen.

Bumblebees started showing up in my garden last week, and I would like to believe that they have been busy with the snapdragons too. If you snap open one of the flowers like I did in the picture above, you can see the pollen-carrying anthers above the opening and then waaaay down at the bottom of the flower is the nectar with the ovary. An industrious bumblebee can push open the flower and then muscle its way in to the bottom. Yay! More flower colors are on the way when there is crossbreeding among my plants. Here’s a great blog posting (Ray Cannon’s Nature Notes) showing a bumblebee taking on a snapdragon.

All this brings me to Mendel and classic genetics. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was a monk who had a deep interest in the science. He lived in a time when genetics was very poorly understood, and the basic question was “how are traits transmitted to new generations?” Mendel chose a plant that self-pollinated like a snapdragon (pea plants) and controlled the cross-pollination between parent plants with distinctive characteristics like the color of the flower, the height of the plant, or the color of the pea. He cut away the pollen producing structures in the flowers, used little brushes to carry pollen from one plant to another (taking on the role of the bumblebee in snapdragons), and then put little fabric hats over the flowers to prevent any other pollination from occurring. Tedious, right? Anyway, this work led to the essential understanding in basic genetics that we all now know. Some genes are dominant, and others are recessive. You have two copies of each gene (one from your mom, one from your dad), and the inheritance of which copy you got from each parent is random. Here’s an online tutorial of classic genetics maintained by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Good thing that Mendel didn’t choose snapdragons. Snapdragons are a problem for classic genetics because their genes don’t always follow the dominant/recessive inheritance pattern. Instead, some of the colors in snapdragons are both expressed at the same time, and we call that codominant. So…. a red snapdragon crossed with a white snapdragon will produce plants with pink flowers. We now understand how and why that happens, and there are lots of other examples of non-Mendelian genetics like blood type inheritance and tortoiseshell cats. If Mendel had chosen snapdragons to study, he would have floundered around forever, but thanks to him (and pea plants) the first understandings were worked out. Think of how hard that was… no one knew what the genetic material was or had glimpsed a chromosome, but he figured out the process using his pea plant data and some truly exhausting math. Way to go, Mendel!!

Seed pods on my snapdragon plants. Those seeds carry the next generation of snapdragons waiting to grow up next year.

So, when I see my snapdragons, I am transported once again to my biology classroom and those early genetics lessons with students. I am connected to the world of science and the legacy given to me by Mendel and others. Why are my flowers a mixture of pink, yellow, and orange? Hmmm…. maybe there is more than one pigment gene at work at the same time, and the amount of pigment being produced is changed as the plant ages? Is this some funky combination of red and yellow genes? I kind of think so, since I now have plants with clear red and yellow flowers: they must have two copies of either the red or yellow gene. Is there another gene kicking in to modulate the amount of pigment produced as the flower ages? What about the pigments that I can’t see, but are there for the bees to see? This is so cool, and I just love snapdragons!!!!

This isn’t just a garden, but a genetics experiment that I’ve been running for a few years now.

Yay, science!

Thoughts on “Lessons in Chemistry” while sitting in my Garden

The monsoon has arrived in Colorado! This monsoon is not bringing any rain my way, but it is carrying in cooler air and gentle breezes through the day. Suddenly I am spending lots of time outside. I’ve worked in the gardens every single evening for a couple of hours and the gardens are actually starting to look like… gardens! Okay, I have to admit, there is still lots of work to get done, but I’m so happy to see tidy weeded gardens with lovely rose bushes without a throng of weeds around them.

In the late afternoons, when it is still a little too sunny to work in the gardens, but nice for sitting outside because my swinging garden seat is in the shade, I move out to read with the wildlife. Look at the great pictures I got this week!

My yard is a playground for a group of juvenile squirrels who are always entertaining. There are huge swallowtail butterflies and tiny birds in the yard, but those guys haven’t stopped long enough for me to get a photo yet. The robin is a regular at my little birdbath, and the first bumblebees of the year showed up to sample some of my flowers. My favorite rose bush, the Princess Alexandra of Kent, now has 15 blooms going. My back gardens are filled with new plantings, and the lavender and yarrow are just a few days away from the first blooms. I’m really enjoying my time outside reading, and then I think about the book while I pull weeds and put the gardens into order.

Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel by Bonnie Garmus has been on my mind a lot this last week. The story is of Elizabeth Zott, an intrepid individualist woman who is a scientist by nature and calling, challenged by her gender and the time in which she lived.

I just love the Elizabeth Zott character. I understand and identify with her so much. Elizabeth is a chemist/scientist trying to do research into an original area of chemistry that intersects with biology. Did I mention that it is the 50s? Oh. Elizabeth has a lot of obstacles to overcome: women are expected to be homemakers, and misogyny and gender stereotypes are everywhere. Other women gossip about her and sabotage her. Men steal her work and take credit for it. She loses her job and ends up doing a cooking show on television.

Where she teaches cooking as lessons in chemistry to produce the best, most wonderful dishes ever. Women love her show, take lecture notes through the programs, cook the meals, and learn to think differently about their abilities, their role in society, and their individual worth. The book is wonderful. The book is about keeping an open mind, questioning everything, collecting data, and thinking for oneself. Also, there is a dog who is a major character in the story and who has a wonderful voice and viewpoint of his own.

So why does this book connect so much to me? Well… I grew up in the 50s and 60s. I entered college as a chemistry major (but once I discovered molecular biology, which is kind of biological chemistry, I was gone…). We kind of forget how things used to be for women, but I do remember how things were.

A small list of events from that time:

  • The men talking out front after church each Sunday sure were critical of women drivers. Like, women shouldn’t be allowed to drive. They were serious!
  • A woman at my church had cancer. Her husband, who was in charge of her health care, had that information concealed from her.
  • My high school counselor told me that I would make a great nurse because I was so smart, I could support doctors in making their diagnoses, helping them with their careers. I decided that maybe I should be a doctor…
  • My chemistry advisor in college told me that women were just taking away a slot from a man and that the education was wasted on them because they would just become housewives. Umm… I had just made the Dean’s List…
  • I interviewed for my first research lab job after college. I had to answer a lot of questions about my husband, his career plans, and whether we would be having another child. I think that I got the job because my husband needed me to support the family while he finished college.
  • Working at my lab bench late one afternoon I overheard the head of the lab discussing the research of one of the postdoctoral fellows, a woman. They were denigrating her work while, at the same time, talking about how they could clean it up for publishing. They published her research under their own names later that year.

Well, that’s enough to give you a glimpse of what it was like for women as they struggled for equal opportunities, standards, and pay. We’ve come a long way, but the fight goes on. What I especially loved about science is that it helped level the playing field and encouraged independent, out-of-the box thinking.

Which brings me back to the book. Elizabeth reads to the dog and teaches him hundreds of words. Elizabeth allows her daughter to read just about anything that she can get her hands on (a reading philosophy that I also benefited from), and teaches her cooking show viewers to take a few minutes to savor their accomplishments. Elizabeth rows with men. Elizabeth moves through the world, astonishingly self-confident, striving always to extend the envelope of her knowledge, fearlessly challenging the status quo, viewing everything through the lens of science.

I kind of think that Elizabeth Zott is my hero!

And science. Always, science.

Cooking may be chemistry, but biology is life.

This is me, sitting in my garden, thinking about life.

The BioGeek Memoirs: American Robin

I’m sitting out in my back yard this late afternoon listening to the songs of robins. What do they sound like, you ask? Check out this link with American robins singing.

I have a lot of robins in the yard this year. I see them on the fence, running across the front yard, pulling up insects and worms from the lawn after I mow and water in the evenings, and splashing in the birdbath in my back yard.

I just love the robins! They are kind of intrepid, don’t you think? Lots of birds hop around, but no, not robins: robins are runners! I watch them run across the road almost every morning while I make my latte, and then across the lawn with a “you bunnies had better get out of my way” attitude. I mean, they are running chests out and leading with their beaks! What could be a better way to start the morning? Be like a robin, tackle each morning at a run! Be sure you get your latte first, however…

I almost never see robins over the winter, but they are kind of early arrivers in the spring. More than once, on a March snowy day, I have walked out to the car to find half a dozen male robins in the trees, heedless of any snow on the branches, carrying on and singing like crazy as they compete with the other birds. These first groups of robins are called waves, and they really are a first sign of spring.

Robins do migrate south in the winter and return to the north in the spring, but evidently it isn’t a strict north/south pattern. When I was back in the biology classroom the students and I would be on the watch for the first signs of spring in a number of categories, and the sign that I like the most was the first robin seen. The first robin of spring was a big deal for the students, and we were really on the watch starting about the first week of March each year. Students started carrying cameras with them hoping to grab a great photo.

Toy robin given to me by a student to use in the classroom. The first robin of spring!!

What? You can report the first robin seen somewhere? Yep. We made our reports to Journey North, which is an educational website where first sighting of spring in a number of categories are reported by students across the nation. Here’s the page for the American robins, and you can see the mapped data with animation here. As you might guess, the first robins are seen towards the south of the US, but then as the season progresses, they are seen further and further north. What I really love about this is that the data shows (and this is data from students all over the nation!) is that robin migration isn’t simple and clear because they tend to spread out to find food and don’t always move south. In the spring, the food becomes available as the sunlight, longer days, and earth warming moves north, and the robins follow the food.

Back to my robins in the yard this year. The fledglings left the nest this week and they have been hanging out in my yard with the bunnies and squirrels.

These little guys are hanging out hoping that one of their parents will come feed them.

I tried to snap a shot of the male feeding them, but there was so much baby-bird food-begging action and wing flapping I couldn’t get a good one before the parent flew off. Still, how cool is this? They are not all that afraid of me and seem to like hanging out with the occasional baby bunny in that side of the yard.

This summer’s baby bunny is doing great!

I have bunnies again this year! The cats are beside themselves!

I half-jokingly told a neighbor last night that I might let the backyard become a meadow. The grass is now taller than the baby bunnies and I am seeing more wildlife than usual. I’m torn, because I am making good progress weeding out my gardens this year and if I let the grass get too long, I will need some type of special mower if I change my mind down the road. What if the baby bunnies need more food? It is tempting…

Nope. As soon as I post this the mower is coming out. Run bunnies, and fledgling robins, you had better take to the wing.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Sunflower

Okay, I need to be complete upfront about this: this is a crossover post. It is going to be a total amalgamation of the Scleroderma Chronicles and The BioGeek Memoirs because I just couldn’t come up with anyway to make them separate posts. Hey, I’m a biogeek with scleroderma. It was bound to happen eventually…

So, let’s get this ball rolling by talking about bean plants. That makes a lot of sense, right? When I was a biology teacher struggling to make plants interesting and to help students understand experimental design, I came up with the genius idea of letting the students design an experiment looking at the effect of fertilizer concentration on the growth of bean plants. The students had solutions with different concentrations of Miracle Gro fertilizer available to them, and then they had to struggle with planting and growing 6 bean plants while holding all the other variables constant. The plants grew, the students measured their growth, and then they charted the growth to make decisions about the best fertilizer amount.

I had the hot idea of using an Excel spreadsheet to display the student data to the whole class. That worked great! I then combined the data from all 5 classes together and… it was a huge mess. The plants were all different heights depending on which class was collecting the data. The students weren’t making any errors; the bean plants were raising and lowering their leaves each day in circadian rhythm. Depending on the time of day, the plants were a different height. Oh. Plants can move!

Sunflowers have been on my mind a lot recently. Beautiful sunflowers, whose faces turn throughout the day to follow the sun. My cousin grew enormous sunflowers one year that towered over the other plants in the garden. Sunflowers are the symbol of Ukraine. The sweater that I am knitting right now is in the colors of a field of sunflowers with their faces in the sun.

Those aren’t sunflowers, but the colors remind me of all the “Support Ukraine” knitting that is going on right now.

There are enormous fields of sunflowers near the airport in Denver that are just spectacular in the late summer. Early one morning in late August,2014, I drove past them on my way to my first appointment with a rheumatologist; my primary care physician had referred me to a specialist after some concerning bloodwork results. I was pretty sure that this morning was going to be a turning point in my life, and I was nervous and kind of fighting off tears. Behind me the rising sun poured light onto the glowing faces of sunflowers ahead of me as far as I could see; the sight was just thrilling, and I settled right down. An hour later the rheumatologist explained that I had limited systemic sclerosis (a form of scleroderma) and Sjogren’s disease. I was prescribed medication, sent for more testing, and told to stay off the internet. I looked for the sunflowers as I drove home that afternoon, but I couldn’t see them; the fields were too far from me as I drove east. Still, just knowing they were there sort of helped. Sunflowers. They were kind of a symbol of hope and the promise that I could handle anything.

Are you ready for this? The sunflower has been chosen as a symbol for scleroderma by Scleroderma Australia. Shine like a Sunflower is their campaign this June to bring scleroderma into the light of awareness.

Just like that the sunflower became an international symbol for scleroderma. I swiped this shirt image off of Amazon.

Why a sunflower? Well, like sunflowers, we scleroderma people follow the sun. Strong sunlight is actually a problem, but the warmth… bring on the warmth! For the last few weeks, I have been recovering from surgery and waiting for my biopsy results. I have been sitting outside on my deck out of the direct sun, soaking up the heat and light. Day by day, I have been improving and no longer need daytime oxygen support. My cardiologist has restarted the medication that was halted while I was in the hospital, and it hasn’t even caused a bump in my recovery. Heat and sunlight are really making a difference.

My biopsy results arrived on the first day of June. I have developed a type of interstitial lung disease that presents as hypersensitivity pneumonia. I also have the characteristics of what the report called a vascular/collagen autoimmune disease, which is pretty much a descriptor for scleroderma. Yep. What my pulmonologist prepared me for. This is interstitial lung disease associated with system sclerosis (SSc-ILD) and I am going to get started on an increased dosage of immunosuppressants and a new drug to prevent scarring in my lungs called OFEV. This drug is really new; it has been developed in the years since my diagnosis, and now it is here just when I need it.

June is Scleroderma Awareness Month. Here in the US the theme of the campaign is Know Scleroderma. Oh, I know scleroderma, and so do some of you through my blog. Let’s put scleroderma aside for the time being and go back to sunflowers. And science. Remember that this post started with a little story about doing a science experiment with bean plants and my students? As simple as that was in my classroom, the heart of that process, curiosity, scientific experimentation, and data manipulation, is serving me well now. Ironically, new therapies and treatment approaches are being developed because of the lung scarring caused by Covid-19. Science. It rocks!

Today I planted these sunflowers along my side fence.

This afternoon I am once again outside in the warmth and light, knitting on my new sweater in the colors of sunflowers against the sky, admiring my beautiful newly planted sunflowers. They have their little faces angled to the southwest, following the sun as it starts to dip towards the Rocky Mountains.

Beautiful, tough, follow-the-sun sunflowers, reminding me to also follow the sun and to shine when I can. They remain a symbol of hope and a promise that I can handle anything.

Shine like a Sunflower.

June is Scleroderma Awareness Month. You can learn more about scleroderma at these links.

Hannah and the CoalBear: Happy Caturday

Hi. I’m Matao.

I’ve been helping the Mother of Cats knit lots and lots of chemo hats.

This was a great week! The weather has been nice and sunny and the Mother of Cats has been sitting out on her deck listening to her audiobook while she knits. Hannah and I have been watching all the stuff in the yard through the windows.

There is a squirrel with the world’s fluffiest tail that hangs out in the back yard. We love the squirrel!!
But the best watching ever is out the back window…
Because there is a baby bunny hanging out in the back yard for us to watch!!
and it is the cutest little bunny ever!!

Happy Caturday, everyone!

I have to get back to helping the Mother of Cats knit these hats!!

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

I’ve been reading the best book ever while knitting outside and watching the wildlife in the back yard. One of the main characters is an octopus, and I just fell in love with him right away. I seriously, seriously recommend this book!

This was a perfect book to listen to as an audiobook. Engaging characters, well told story, happy ending.

Years ago, another biology teacher told me about an octopus that would break out of his tank to go snack on crayfish from another tank in the lab. Yep. They gave been known to do this. Very smart, able to squish through very small openings, octopuses are kind of the stuff of legend. In this book, the octopus is also a wanderer with an incredible memory who becomes a pivotal character in the lives of the people who know him. I wanted the book to go on and now I am on the hunt for another easy to listen to books to keep me company while knitting outside with the wildlife.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Conifers

Conifers. Oh, my goodness, who doesn’t love conifers? As in wonderful smells, pinecones, Christmas trees, snowy days, and fun trips to the mountains. I grew up in southern California and the conifer that I loved as a child was the ponderosa pine. It had bark that pulled apart into jigsaw shaped pieces. The bark smelled like butterscotch (or maybe vanilla), and the long needles grew in little bundles of three… perfect for braiding!! The cones are perfect for dabbing with white paint, sprinkling with glitter, and then using for holiday decorating. Perfect tree, the ponderosa pine. It is beautiful and kind of feathery with clumps of needles near the ends of branches.

Then I moved to Colorado.

Trees in Rocky Mountain National Park. The large tree on the left is a ponderosa pine.

Oh, boy, did I need to learn a lot more about these trees. There are a lot of conifers in Colorado, and they grow in different environments and elevations as you drive up into our mountains. The ponderosa pines are found at lower elevations (5,000 – 7,000 feet) and then as you drive up into higher elevations different trees start to show up as the ponderosas disappear. In high elevations they are nowhere to be found, and the trees that are around 10,000 feet are specialized and designed to live in challenging environments. One tree has branches that are so flexible you can tie them in knots (limber pine), and another is just dripping in anti-freeze sap (bristlecone pine).

One summer I took a forestry class and spent a couple of weeks coring trees and recording their elevation and growth into a large data base maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. I learned to shield my coring activity from casual hikers (Yeah. People in the Boulder, Colorado might take extreme exception to your activities if they suspect that you are harming a tree… tree huggers are alive and well here!) and developed an appreciation for the impact of local environmental conditions on trees.

As a biology teacher I struggled to teach plants (yawn) and taxonomy (super-yawn) to my students. I searched for hands-on activities that could be used to teach these units, and finally remembered that the teachers in the high school where I did my student teaching ran a big lab where students used keys to identify Colorado’s conifers. Another teacher had keys that we could adapt to use with the activity and off I went on a road trip to collect conifer samples in the Rocky Mountains west of the town where I live.

Why use conifers? Well, they are pretty darn interesting if you think about it. The plants produce two different types of cones (seed, on the left, and pollen, on the right) and have leaves that are needle like. They are older than flowering plants in evolutionary terms and have some cool adaptations. They use wind to reproduce and have turpentine and other organic compounds that allow them to stay alive in cold climates. Cut branches are hardy enough to survive handling by hundreds of students as they worked the activity. Yeah. Conifers were the ticket!!

So, how did this work? The students picked up bins with samples of branches and cones from the plants and, using the keys, figured out what conifer they had. The key took the students through a decision tree using needle and cone characteristics that became more and more detailed as they moved down the decision tree.

For instance, were needles single or in clusters? Were they round or flat? Were they sharp or soft to the touch? (Left to right, these three are the blue spruce, the bristlecone pine, and the white fir. Spruce needles are round and sharp, pine needles grow in clusters, and firs are flat needled and soft to the touch.)

Differences in cones can be extremely helpful in identifying the species. Left is the seed cone from a Douglas-Fir and to the right the seed cone from an Engelmann spruce.

The end result of the activity: this student has colored conifers in each genus a different color. See what happened?

I bet you can see it without me saying anything. Conifers that are closely related have very similar characteristics; closely related species are very difficult to tell apart and the differences are subtle. In the real world the final sorting is sometimes done by differences in DNA. It was easy after this activity to move into the more abstract topics of classification (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) and then link back to evolution with the tree observations: some closely related species actually grow at different elevations on the mountain. Living in different environments, these trees don’t reproduce with each other and have gradually grown apart into different species.

I struggled to key out conifer samples as a new biology teacher. Nowadays I can identify the tree while driving by on the road and I didn’t bother to drive up into the mountains anymore at the end of my teaching days. I would just pull the car over and clip off a little branch and grab some cones if I could: gone in 60 seconds was my motto! There are some great trees in my local park and the high school where I used to teach had 5 different Colorado conifers on the property. I have a Douglas-Fir in my back yard. I can get at least 11 different conifer samples in a one-hour drive around town. I haven’t taught this activity in years and yet I still look for great trees while out on errands.

Because conifers make me happy!!

After all, who doesn’t love conifers?

The view from my front window this morning.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Prairie Dog

Wow, things are really looking up around town this week. The trees are all blooming and I can see that some are getting ready for their leaves to burst out.

My first spring crocus p0pped up through the winter blanket of leaves last week.

We may still get some snow this spring, so the leaves are staying in the flower beds for a few more weeks, but it definitely feels like the tide has turned and we are now well into the new season. Suddenly there are green strips along all of the roads and the fields are flashing green as I drive by… except where there are prairie dogs. Those areas are now bare, and the dogs are leaving their mounds to hunt for food. There are a lot of hungry prairie dogs right now grazing in the fields and along the roads.

These prairie dogs are living between a parking lot and the tracks of a light rail line in the heart of the city where I live.

I love prairie dogs!! There was a colony on display at the San Diego Zoo that was a big hit with visitors, and I certainly thought that they were the cutest things ever when I was a little girl. Seriously, they have those cute little black-tipped tails! They are a riot as they run along the ground. They bark! They are social and very aware of each other while out grazing: a few prairie dogs will stand watch and whistle warnings and all-clears as needed. The prairie dogs living in my city have become nonchalant about moving cars, but if you get out of the car to grab a picture there will be a whistle, the scurry of little prairie dog feet and then the rapid dive down holes. Believe me, I know this well.

See the little head peeking out of the hole? I took this picture through the car window.

I once was sitting in stopped traffic at a light next to a prairie dog colony when there was an abrupt whistle, scramble, and hole dive by all the dogs who had been happily munching on plants a few seconds earlier. Looking to see what had spooked them I was amazed to see a bald eagle soaring through the intersection at the height of the traffic light poles. Wow. That was close, little prairie dogs, but the early warning system worked with seconds to spare.

Um… bald eagles, the symbol of the United States, eat prairie dogs? Yup! Bald eagles arrive every winter here in my state of Colorado to nest and raise their eaglets. The eggs are laid around the middle of February into March, and then the eggs hatch in a little more than a month. Right now, as all the prairie dogs are out and about scrambling for food, the eagles are starting to feed the eaglets. It is a big deal as the nests are enormous and often are in trees that are blocked from the public so that the eagles will be undisturbed; a nest was lost recently and made the news. Those hungry little eaglets are being fed a lot of prairie dogs, to be honest. The parent eagles soar over my city in loops as they search for a meal, and more than once I’ve seen the eagle on the ground with the prairie dog catch. You can access an eagle cam videos here.

Prairie dogs yesterday in the lawn of my Kaiser clinic. If they aren’t chased off this lawn is pretty much doomed.

Yep, that lawn is toast for sure. They are already digging holes into the ground and moving in to stay. So, prairie dogs can be huge pests, but they are tolerated in fields and along roadways all along town because they are essential to the prairie wildlife ecosystem; remember the soaring eagles overhead? Years ago, I acquired a mentor from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was a great photographer. He worked with a group of my 6th grade students to produce a slideshow about prairie dogs that the students presented to the public at an open house at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. While working with my students and the mentor we learned that prairie dogs are a keystone species that is important to many other forms of life in the prairie ecosystem. Some animals, like the black-footed ferret, are almost completely dependent on prairie dogs, while they are important to others like bison, coyotes, eagles, pronghorn antelope, and other types of life such as plants and insects. As it turns out, if a prairie colony disappears for some reason, it may be reestablished later because they are important sources of food for so many other species in our area and have such a positive impact on the environment.

Prairie dog in a field by my library.

Humm… why would a prairie dog colony suddenly disappear? Well, as it turns out, prairie dogs can become infected with fleas carrying plague. Yep. That plague, as in the black death plague. Sometime warning signs appear in fields alerting people to a plague outbreak in my area and we all know not to handle prairie dogs or to walk through fields with colonies. It’s important to treat pets for fleas and to not let students bring sick animals (like squirrels) into your classroom!!!!! Plague cases happen here in Colorado and warnings are common. That’s the downside of living along with prairie life in a state such as mine.

So, this all sounds a little grim for the poor little prairie dogs, right? Towards the bottom of the food chain. Outbreaks of plague. Yikes!

Did I mention that prairie dogs are EVERYWHERE right now? Thriving in an urban environment? Living successfully in fields everywhere? And, I want to add, the baby prairie dogs aren’t even out yet. If you think that prairie dogs are cute, you should see the little guys once the parents bring them out. 🙂

The truth is prairie dogs colonies are monitored and protected when they can be. Outbreaks of plague in colonies are taken seriously and the area is treated to halt the spread of the insects carrying the bacteria that causes plague; efforts are made to help the colony recover. Prairie dogs are flourishing, and because they are, they have contributed to the success of other species that are coming back from the edge of extinction or endangerment. The bald eagle, the bison, and especially the black-footed ferret are benefiting from the return of healthy prairie dog colonies.

Yesterday I went to pick up a form from my doctor and there was this little herd of dogs on the side lawn. They had come in from a nearby field and were running amok in the grass. It made me so happy to see them! As soon as I drove over near them there was a bark, a scramble back across the road to the field, and little heads watching me from new holes in the lawn.

I just love prairie dogs!!

The BioGeek Memoirs: Bees

The last few days have been warm and sunny, and the perennial shrubs are starting to green up out in the garden. My patch of catmint is already coming back to life and the return of bees to the garden is right around the corner.

Honeybee in my catmint last year.

I just love bees! I used to be afraid of them as a child (I mean, who wouldn’t be? They are kind of scary and they sting!) until I learned the difference between bees and wasps. Now I get a little thrill seeing the bees buzzing around plants in the garden and set boundaries with the paper wasps whenever they build a hive in my yard. (Here’s the boundary… if the wasps leave me alone, they are safe. If I get harassed or stung that nest is history!)

Of course, I am planting things that the bees like in my yard! They just love my sedum and viburnum along with the catmint, but they also spend some time with the dandelions. They absolutely love the neighborhood flowering trees. Just as I have established some boundaries with the wasps in my yard, I have negotiated some boundaries with the (male) neighbors over dandelions. They tend to get a little worked up if I don’t eradicate every single dandelion in the front yard, so I do stay on top of them out front… (sigh)… but in the back I have some carefully maintained dandelion plants that are now the size of romaine lettuces. Bees love dandelions!! Since dandelions bloom really early in the spring they are an important source of pollen for bees so I let them bloom and then cut off the seed globes before the seeds fly. Later in the year the leaves on those dandelion plants are food for my wild bunny. Shhhh… the dandelions are a secret that my favorite neighbor, Alton, doesn’t know about. He mows the front lawn for me every week in the summer, and wonders why I won’t let him do the back yard… 🙂

Bunnies eat dandelions!

Long ago I had a bumblebee nest in my back yard. These bees (they are kind of fuzzy instead of smooth, are larger than honeybees, and mine had a red band at the top of their abdomen) live in things like woodpiles or holes in the ground. In my yard the bees were living in a hive in the ground, so I built a little shelter over the nest with flagstones. The hive survived year after year, and we came to love these gentle little bees.

Bumblebee at my catmint. See the fuzz?

The bees flew exact flight paths every afternoon coming home with pollen, and if you accidently walked into the flight path, they would bounce off you (repeatedly) and hover in the air waiting for the path to reopen. It was so cute! These bees were so gentle that no one in our family was ever stung except for a cat who took a nap on top of the opening to the hive… sad boy, we found the bee clinging to his belly once we calmed him down.

Morgan: that bee was a nightmare!!!

Every year as a biology teacher my students and I learned about bees as we watched a NOVA program together called Tales from the Hive. The students loved, loved, loved this show. I attended a workshop on bees at the University of Colorado and put my name in to win a beehive for my classroom and sadly lost to another teacher who absolutely, positively did not deserve that hive as much as I did (!!!) but I’m over it now. Sniff. The students and I were all crushed at the news that I had lost…

Why learn about bees? Well, bees are especially important in our ecology as pollinators. Basically, flowers are all about reproduction, and if the pollen on the flower (the male part) isn’t carried to the female part of the flower there won’t be any seeds or baby plants in the future. Plants get pollinated by lots of different means, but many plants rely on bees. The flowers are specifically designed to attract bees, and bees rely on the flowers to survive. We benefit from this relationship between bees and plants as the resulting process produces a lot of our food. Some crops are 90% dependent on bees for reproduction, and altogether about one third of our food is dependent on bees. Believe it or not, as the blooming season moves north up the planet there are mobile beehives that travel north as well, traveling to orchards and fields, bringing the bees as pollinators for those crops. As a teacher I could use bees to teach about ecology, evolution, invertebrates, sociobiology, and bioethics. Bees were really important to me as a teacher!

So, how much do I love bees? Well, I spent a summer reading a whole series of books about bees and blogged about it here. I spent a week one June on horseback in the Colorado wilderness riding a horse named Industrious Bee.

Bee and me. What a great week that was!!

I spent another summer teaching an advanced biology program with the best student teacher ever and learned even more about bees here in Colorado because his mother was a beekeeper. When the program ended in July, I received a little gift package of honey from him. See. If bees are involved, all things are good!

How much do I love bees? Well, I knitted myself my own little bee to keep me company over the winter.

The pattern for this bee is by Claire Garland and is called Bees are Beautiful.

Yes, they are!